The dynamics of the Social Ecosystem Model (SEM) in cities – connecting Working, Living and Learning 

Cities and the social ecosystem model

Social ecosystems can be seen to lie on the nexus of private and public economic activity.  Market-oriented elite ecosystems (e.g. London Digital City) comprise, for example, clusters of firms of different sizes using high skills and innovative practices that connect digital development, advertising and finance.  In the UK these ‘niche’ clusters have become situated adjacent to the City of London (e.g. Silicon Roundabout) and once established become a magnet for workers and companies nationally and internationally.  The Mayor of London’s ‘Tech Capital of the World’ strategy is based on the dynamic of Fintech.  While these high-innovation and market-oriented ecosystems appear to emerge naturally in a financialised economy, on closer scrutiny they have an inter-dependent relationship with the public realm for their further development.  The work of the Harvard Business School on ‘Enriching the Ecosystem’ makes it clear that this involves not only city infrastructure, such as transport and housing (the responsibilities of regional government), but the creation of connections between education and these clusters of companies; the relationship between small and large businesses; generating ideas and bringing together different leaderships.  

Elite market-oriented clusters can rely on a steady stream of educated labour that is prepared to migrate to the city and is the product of national and international higher education systems that do not necessarily interact directly with these clusters of companies. Furthermore, niche market-oriented ecosystems reflect the uneven development of new LSEs and therefore these dynamic islands can sit alongside areas of general stagnation.  

Supernova and polycentric London

Global cities, such as London, provide a crucial context for the exploration and development of the social ecosystem model.  Here we argue that London can be understood as a ‘supernova city’ with a mono-centre and convergent travel to work patterns (see Figure 4 below).  

Figure 4. Supernova London














The supernova effect reflects in part the elite ecosystem model at work – a dynamic City-based FinTech sector that spreads out with rippling effects on house prices causing social polarization and displacement.  The resulting inequalities undermine public services because it is difficult for many to work and live in London with the young, in particular, having no option other than to leave for a less expensive environment.

However, reflecting the elite/social ecosystem distinction, monocentric supernova London can be contrasted with emergent polycentric urban developments.  While supernova realities currently dominate, a more polycentric vision of London is emerging with plans such as Cities in the East and West; Innovation Districts and London’s Remade Towns.  These new polycentric developments, that are also embedded in regional and sub-regional strategies, point to a possible future ‘rebalanced’ London that comprises not only a dynamic centre, but also a spread of vibrant urban hubs/communities in the outer boroughs; urban terrains which have the potential to integrate working, living and learning.  Here it is suggested that the social ecosystem model might have a symbiotic role in relation to polycentric developments insofar as the social ecosystem conception helps to envisage each of the polycentres as a complex functioning social unit. 

At the same time, however, these social ecosystems function within London as an overall urban organism.  What is being suggested here is not a historical reversion to London as 32 villages and a backwards-looking parochialism, but a process of rebalancing away from the supernova towards a progressive or ‘legitimate parochialism’ in which Londoners continue to travel for certain types of work and specialized education and training, but have more opportunities to integrate working, living and learning locally.  The idea of a polycentric London, comprising multiple social ecosystems, may have been given added impetus as a result of COVID 19 and the rapid decline of commuting to the mono centre.  It is quite possible that post-pandemic, these historical patterns may not revert entirely to the past normal.

Explorations of the local and sub-regional 

London’s East – Near, Middle and Far

As the capital city expands, so it is moving eastwards.  The emerging character of London’s New East lends itself to a social ecosystem conception insofar as it appears to be developing different places, each with their own distinct characteristics. On close scrutiny, London’s East could be seen as at least three places – Near, Middle and Far - by virtue of their spatial relationship to the FinTech mono centre.

Figure 5. London's East - Near, Middle and Far


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The Near East, comprising Hackney and Tower Hamlets, contains parts of the City of London and the Fintech ecosystem of Silicon Roundabout.  The Middle East is represented by Newham with its ‘Olympicopolis’, a new metropolitan centre for London, comprising the Olympic site, the Westfield retail centre, new residences and its international and national transport links.  Barking and Dagenham could be seen as the ‘Far East’, due to its relative distance from the supernova centre with the largest brown-field sites in Europe ready for development.

The activity boundaries of social ecosystems

Locating a social ecosystem is a conceptual challenge because, unlike an administrative entity such as a local authority borough, it does not have clearly defined boundaries.  Its edges or frontiers are multiple and permeable.  The boundaries of a social ecosystem will be based on the intersection of a range of factors that cement a sense of ‘place’ both materially and culturally.  These include economic activity and new types of jobs; places to live and the creation of vibrant communities; transport links that allow travel in different directions and not just to the mono-centre; learning provision that responds to the needs of the local population; and the aspiration to achieve high levels of knowledge and skill that suggest not just rootedness but a willingness to travel.  

It may be better, therefore, to think of social ecosystems as having ‘activity boundaries’ – economic, living, learning, cultural and so on. This recognition has several implications.  First, in terms of the economic and social geography of London’s East, there may be multiple social ecosystems defined by the activities on the working, living and learning nexus.  Second, the role of political/administrative boundaries remains strong.  Local government will attempt to cement an idea of a London Borough as a place of working, living and learning while accepting, for example, that a new local economy will straddle borough boundaries thus requiring collaboration on a sub-regional basis.  One of the roles of ecosystem leadership, therefore, is to try to align the activity boundaries so that they make practical sense to local citizens and wider stakeholders as the concept of a social ecosystem cements a sense of place with multi-layered identities. In reality, people possess more than one way of thinking about themselves (e.g. they can be an East Ender, a Londoner, English, British and so on). 


The multiple dynamics of the SEM - connecting Working, Living and Learning











Dimension 1. Collaborative horizontalities (e.g. local networks, anchor institutions, workplaces, communities and digital technologies)

Extended and participatory horizontal terrains are a fundamental feature of the SEM.  In contrast to the spatial effects of elite ecosystem and its inequitable place utilisation’ or even ‘place exploitation’ (the attraction and therefore utilization/exploitation of particular geographies to entrepreneurs and residents, the prime focus of the SEM is the ‘area’ or ‘local place’ as a platform for economic, civic and educational participation.  The SEM, therefore, suggests an emphasis on ‘place-making’ in environments where some place-based assets may be scarce and in need of investment and/or construction.  Building networks between public, private and community organisations concerned with working, living and learning is crucial in developing the contexts for the SEM to function and flourish.


At the same time, however, network-building has to progress to institution-building because the future stability of the social ecosystem will depend not only on networks and relationships, but also on strong inclusive anchor organisations.  An anchor organisation/institution is one that, alongside its main function, plays a significant and recognised role in a locality by making a strategic contribution to the local economy and supporting a sense of local identity (Stringer et al., 2006).  Entrepreneurial ecosystem literatures, including Finegold’s HSE work, have emphasised the role of research-intensive universities in the ‘nourishment’ process.  The SEM, on the other hand, due to its inclusion function looks also to more ‘comprehensive’ institutions such as further education colleges with their diverse learning populations.


At the heart of the SEM lies horizontal collaborative experimentation through the working, living and learning nexus – economic co-production in and for the workplace; public participation in relation to developing sustainable living; and the full involvement of education providers to assist with growing education and skill capacity.


Dimension 2. Facilitating verticalities (national state policies and regulations, local/regional government)

For the SEM, the role of ‘facilitating verticalities’ is part of a recognition that local horizontal terrains do not exist in isolation; they are tied in various ways to regions, to the national state and to wider civil society.  Social ecosystems will require not only strong horizontal strategies, but also supportive vertical ones, marked by a strengthening of the investment, innovation, regulatory and market-shaping roles of the national state (Mazzucato, 2016).  Accompanying this would also be the expansion of the public realm combined with democratic and devolution reforms.  This would involve national government seeking to empower the ‘middle layer’ of governance and popular participation by devolving important powers to the local level through ‘democratic localism’, reflecting a rebalancing of national, regional and local relations (Hodgson and Spours, 2012).  In addition, the SEM also contains a downward vertical dimension involving local communities that often find it difficult to express a voice in ‘local place-shaping’ around regeneration schemes; a seemingly progressive aim that can all too easily become an exercise in urban gentrification (Jones, 2018).  


Dimension 3. 45-degree mediation (common mission and ecosystem leadership)

Social ecosystems are not formed naturally within current economic and political conditions but, instead, require a range of new conditions and nurturing processes to come into existence.  Referred to elsewhere as ’45-degree Politics’ (Lawson, 2019), a third and fundamental dimension of the SEM concerns the role of ‘mediation and connectivity’, including the concepts of ecosystem leadership, formative educational activity and socially-designed technological connectivity.


Social ecosystem leadership, comprising the twin-mission of cohering horizontalities and mediating state verticalities, is essentially a collaborative enterprise involving representatives from, for example, local government, further and higher education, workplaces and wider civil society.  Working on horizontal terrains requires ‘prospective’ thinking and not just reflection on what has already happened. This will necessarily involve a deep knowledge of the complexities of the locality and its key challenges, together with a capacity to foster a shared sense of mission between a variety of social partners and their specialisms (Mazzucato, 2016).  Social ecosystem leadership, therefore, seeks to bring about a ‘synergy of differences’ with a common focus on inclusive economic growth, sustainable living and lifelong learning.  The mediation of ‘verticalities’, on the other hand, will involve fully utilising devolved political responsibilities and the ability to ‘creatively translate’ national policy for the local/regional context, in order to coordinate a diverse range of catalytic factors including public investments and allied private sector initiatives.


Local systems of education and training are vital forms of social ecosystem connectivity.  In order to support the ‘combinational economy’, that includes lower levels of skill and integrates SMEs as well as high skills and large companies, will involve partnerships between higher and further education institutions, employers and state/civil society actors to develop the local education and training opportunities that ensure local people can access new jobs, progress within employment and fully participate in civic life.  The educational formation of the SEM is, therefore, much broader, more inclusive and more central than the educational relations that support the elite ecosystem model.


Social digital technologies also play an important connective role.  While it will be important to create ‘talent pipelines’ in digital skills and to utilize apprenticeships to help fill envisaged skills gaps, the social ecosystem concept suggests more fundamental connective and participatory roles for digital technologies in what might be described as their ‘socio-technical’ function.  These could include becoming an integral part of polycentric urban developments through devolved clustering of digital entrepreneurs linked to innovations in public services and the new local economy and the concept of ‘City as Platform’, in which the networked city sees citizens as co-designers, co-producers and co-learners (Bollier, 2016).  


Dimension 4. Ecosystem construction and evolution over time

Elite ecosystems are viewed as highly dynamic but ‘time-bound’, insofar as they are dependent on degeneration/regeneration cycles in order to produce entrepreneurial spin-offs and recycling.  In contrast, the SEM should be considered as a long-term historical project in which continued intellectual effort is required to understand the configuration of forces needed for the flourishing of such a system and the nurturing of complex relationships over time.  


While there will be a necessary element of unpredictability in ecosystem development insofar as complex social organisms themselves evolve, the SEM suggests that particular activities are important on local and sub-regional terrains where place-based social ecosystems are essentially built over time.  

Figure 7. The SEM synergy cycle



















As Figure 7 illustrates, SEM construction over time would include the identification and mapping of existing relations and challenges to formulate the common mission, building networked sets of activities to develop new forms of collaborative activity that would, in turn, create the demand for new types of skills, thus creating a ‘social ecosystem effect’.  

The broader and participatory formation of social and political forces in the social ecosystem model decisively breaks with elite ecosystems not only in terms of the range of forces assembled and level of social inclusion, but also in terms of the underlying thinking.  Whereas the elite ecosystem model is understood retrospectively (rationalising what has already taken place), the social ecosystem model is envisioned prospectively as a long-term project of inclusive construction.  

Practical implications of the dynamics of social ecosystems

The development of social ecosystems that are able to connect working, living and learning will necessarily involve the development of local and sub-regional networks involving a range of social partners and with a leading and co-ordinating role for local government. Leading the development of a social ecosystem model will also require an outward-facing form of politics with particular attention being paid to alliance-building on the ground and ways of mediating vertical forces from the national state.  


The essential terrains for the construction of social ecosystems are the middle layers of Exo 1 (local) and Exo 2 (sub-regional).  On both landscapes there will need to be an accent on collaboration between different social partners.  There is also a presumption that national government will have to play a facilitating role in order to foster local social ecosystem developments through the development of 'facilitating frameworks' through, for example, funding and the devolution of regulatory mechanisms to support local co-ordination.  Within these broad politics, there will also be very important roles for education institutions, particularly those that are able to reach out to marginalised communities.



A social ecosystem is conceived as an evolving, place-based social formation that connects the worlds of working, living and learning with the purpose of nurturing inclusive, sustainable economic, social and educational development in diverse communities, localities and sub-regions.  The social ecosystem model (SEM) is currently conceptualized as comprising four related dimensions - 1. collaborative horizontalities (education networks, local anchor institutions, a range of social partners/communities supported by the connective the role of digital technologies); 2. facilitating verticalities (an enabling national state and empowered local state); 3. 45-degree politics and mediation through common mission and ecosystem leadership; 4. the concept of ecological time that allows for processes of holistic and deliberative system evolution’.

See Figure 6 (below) for an illustration of the horizontal, vertical and mediating dynamics of the SEM.

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